The document contains a quick introduction to the basic concepts, and then a walk-through development of a simple application using the Xapian library, together with commentary on how the application could be taken further. It deliberately avoids going into a lot of detail - see the rest of the documentation for more detail.


Before following the steps outlined in this document, you will need to have the Xapian library installed on your system. For instructions on obtaining and installing Xapian, read the Installation document.


An information retrieval system using Xapian typically has two parts. The first part is the indexer, which takes documents in various formats, processes them so that they can be efficiently searched, and stores the processed documents in an appropriate data structure (the database). The second part is the searcher, which takes queries and reads the database to return a list of the documents relevant to each query.

The database is the data structure which ties the indexer and searcher together, and is fundamental to the retrieval process. Given how fundamental it is, it is unsurprising that different applications put different demands on the database. For example, some applications may be happy to deal with searching a static collection of data, but need to do this extremely fast (for example, a web search engine which builds new databases from scratch nightly or even weekly). Other applications may require that new data can be added to the system incrementally, but don't require extremely high performance searching (perhaps an email system, which is only being searched occasionally). There are many other constraints which may be placed on an information retrieval system: for example, it may be required to have small database sizes, even at the expense of getting poorer results from the system.

To provide the required flexibility, Xapian has the ability to use one of many available database backends, each of which satisfies a different set of constraints, and stores its data in a different way. Currently, these must be compiled into the whole system, and selected at runtime, but the ability to dynamically load modules for each of these backends is likely to be added in future, and would require little design modification.

An example indexer

We now present sample code for an indexer. This is deliberately simplified to make it easier to follow. You can also read it in an HTML formatted version.

The "indexer" presented here is simply a small program which takes a path to a database and a set of parameters defining a document on the command line, and stores that document as a new entry in the database.

Include header files

The first requirement in any program using the Xapian library is to include the Xapian header file, "xapian.h":

#include <xapian.h>

We're going to use C++ iostreams for output, so we need to include the iostream header, and we'll also import everything from namespace std for convenience:

#include <iostream>
using namespace std;

Our example only has a single function, main(), so next we define that:

int main(int argc, char **argv)

Options parsing

For this example we do very simple options parsing. We are going to use the core functionality of Xapian of searching for specific terms in the database, and we are not going to use any of the extra facilities, such as the keys which may be associated with each document. We are also going to store a simple string as the data associated with each document.

Thus, our command line syntax is:

  • Parameter 1 - the (possibly relative) path to the database.
  • Parameter 2 - the string to be stored as the document data.
  • Parameters 3 onward - the terms to be stored in the database. The terms will be assumed to occur at successive positions in the document.

The validity of a command line can therefore be checked very simply by ensuring that there are at least 3 parameters:

if (argc < 4) {
    cout << "usage: " << argv[0] <<
            " <path to database> <document data> <document terms>" << endl;

Catching exceptions

When an error occurs in Xapian it is reported by means of the C++ exception mechanism. All errors in Xapian are derived classes of Xapian::Error, so simple error handling can be performed by enclosing all the code in a try-catch block to catch any Xapian::Error exceptions. A (hopefully) helpful message can be extracted from the Xapian::Error object by calling its get_msg() method, which returns a human readable string.

Note that all calls to the Xapian library should be performed inside a try-catch block, since otherwise errors will result in uncaught exceptions; this usually results in the execution aborting.

Note also that Xapian::Error is a virtual base class, and thus can't be copied: you must therefore catch exceptions by reference, as in the following example code:

try {
    [code which accesses Xapian]
} catch (const Xapian::Error & error) {
    cout << "Exception: " << error.get_msg() << endl;

Opening the database

In Xapian, a database is opened for writing by creating a Xapian::WritableDatabase object.

If you pass Xapian::DB_CREATE_OR_OPEN and there isn't an existing database in the specified directory, Xapian will try to create a new empty database there. If there is already database in the specified directory, it will be opened.

If an error occurs when trying to open a database, or to create a new database, an exception, usually of type Xapian::DatabaseOpeningError or Xapian::DatabaseCreateError, will be thrown.

The code to open a database for writing is, then:

Xapian::WritableDatabase database(argv[1], Xapian::DB_CREATE_OR_OPEN);

Preparing the new document

Now that we have the database open, we need to prepare a document to put in it. This is done by creating a Xapian::Document object, filling this with data, and then giving it to the database.

The first step, then, is to create the document:

Xapian::Document newdocument;

Each Xapian::Document has a "cargo" known as the document data. This data is opaque to Xapian - the meaning of it is entirely user-defined. Typically it contains information to allow results to be displayed by the application, for example a URL for the indexed document and some text which is to be displayed when returning the document as search result.

For our example, we shall simply store the second parameter given on the command line in the data field:


The next step is to put the terms which are to be used when searching for the document into the Xapian::Document object.

We shall use the add_posting() method, which adds an occurrence of a term to the struct. The first parameter is the "termname", which is a string defining the term. This string can be anything, as long as the same string is always used to refer to the same term. The string will often be the (possibly stemmed) text of the term, but might be in a compressed, or even hashed, form. Most backends impose a limit on the length of a termname (for chert the limit is 245 bytes).

The second parameter is the position at which the term occurs within the document. These positions start at 1. This information is used for some search features such as phrase matching or passage retrieval, but is not essential to the search.

We add postings for terms with the termname given as each of the remaining command line parameters:

for (int i = 3; i < argc; ++i) {
    newdocument.add_posting(argv[i], i - 2);

Adding the document to the database

Finally, we can add the document to the database. This simply involves calling Xapian::WritableDatabase::add_document(), and passing it the Xapian::Document object:


The operation of adding a document is atomic: either the document will be added, or an exception will be thrown and the document will not be in the new database.

add_document() returns a value of type Xapian::docid. This is the document ID of the newly added document, which is simply a handle which can be used to access the document in future.

Note that this use of add_document() is actually fairly inefficient: if we had a large database, it would be desirable to group as many document additions together as possible, by encapsulating them within a session. For details of this, and of the transaction facility for performing sets of database modifications atomically, see the API Overview.

An example searcher

Now we show the code for a simple searcher, which will search the database built by the indexer above. Again, you can read an HTML formatted version.

The "searcher" presented here is, like the "indexer", simply a small command line driven program. It takes a path to a database and some search terms, performs a probabilistic search for documents represented by those terms and displays a ranked list of matching documents.

Setting up

Just like "quickstartindex", we have a single-function example. So we include the Xapian header file, and begin:

#include <xapian.h>

int main(int argc, char **argv)

Options parsing

Again, we are going to use no special options, and have a very simple command line syntax:

  • Parameter 1 - the (possibly relative) path to the database.
  • Parameters 2 onward - the terms to be searched for in the database.

The validity of a command line can therefore be checked very simply by ensuring that there are at least 2 parameters:

if (argc < 3) {
    cout << "usage: " << argv[0] <<
            " <path to database> <search terms>" << endl;

Catching exceptions

Again, this is performed just as it was for the simple indexer.

try {
    [code which accesses Xapian]
} catch (const Xapian::Error & error) {
    cout << "Exception: " << error.get_msg() << endl;

Specifying the databases

Xapian has the ability to search over many databases simultaneously, possibly even with the databases distributed across a network of machines. Each database can be in its own format, so, for example, we might have a system searching across two remote databases and a flint database.

To open a single database, we create a Xapian::Database object, passing the path to the database we want to open:

Xapian::Database db(argv[1]);

You can also search multiple database by adding them together using Xapian::Database::add_database:

Xapian::Database databases;

Starting an enquire session

All searches across databases by Xapian are performed within the context of an "Enquire" session. This session is represented by a Xapian::Enquire object, and is across a specified collection of databases. To change the database collection, it is necessary to open a new enquire session, by creating a new Xapian::Enquire object.

Xapian::Enquire enquire(databases);

An enquire session is also the context within which all other database reading operations, such as query expansion and reading the data associated with a document, are performed.


Now that we have the code written, all we need to do is compile it!

Finding the Xapian library

A small utility, "xapian-config", is installed along with Xapian to assist you in finding the installed Xapian library, and in generating the flags to pass to the compiler and linker to compile.

After a successful compilation, this utility should be in your path, so you can simply run

xapian-config --cxxflags

to determine the flags to pass to the compiler, and

xapian-config --libs

to determine the flags to pass to the linker. These flags are returned on the utility's standard output (so you could use backtick notation to include them on your command line).

If your project uses the GNU autoconf tool, you may also use the XO_LIB_XAPIAN macro, which is included as part of Xapian, and will check for an installation of Xapian and set (and AC_SUBST) the XAPIAN_CXXFLAGS and XAPIAN_LIBS variables to be the flags to pass to the compiler and linker, respectively.

If you don't use GNU autoconf, don't worry about this.

Compiling the quickstart examples

Once you know the compilation flags, compilation is a simple matter of invoking the compiler! For our example, we could compile the two utilities (quickstartindex and quickstartsearch) with the commands:

c++ `xapian-config --cxxflags` quickstartindex.cc `xapian-config --libs` -o quickstartindex
c++ `xapian-config --cxxflags` quickstartsearch.cc `xapian-config --libs` -o quickstartsearch

Running the examples

Once we have compiled the above examples, we can build up a simple database as follows.

$ ./quickstartindex proverbs \
> "people who live in glass houses should not throw stones" \
> people live glass house stone
$ ./quickstartindex proverbs \
> "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth" \
> look gift horse mouth

For the first command, the database directory doesn't already exist, so Xapian will create it and also create the database files inside it. For the second command, it will use the database which now exists, so we should now have a database with a couple of documents in it. Looking in the database directory, you should see something like:

$ ls proverbs/
[some files]

Given the small amount of data in the database, you may be concerned that the total size of these files is a little over 32KB. Be reassured that the database is block structured, here consisting of largely empty blocks, and will behave much better for large databases.

We can now perform searches over the database using the quickstartsearch program.

$ ./quickstartsearch proverbs look
Performing query `look'
1 results found
Document ID 2   50% [Don't look a gift horse in the mouth]